Getting healthier and gaining longevity are growing goals for many people. Recent research has illuminated that increasing consumption of plant-based foods and decreasing animal-based food products may be a key element in achieving both of these goals. Why is a plant-based diet healthier than one that focuses on animal-based products? An underlying reason is cholesterol. While plant-based foods are shown to lower dangerous cholesterol levels (LDL), foods made from animal products have actually been shown to increase cholesterol levels.
What is Low-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol?
When we hear “cholesterol” most of us instantly connect it to “unhealthy” or “bad.” Yet, cholesterol is an essential substance that also happens to be part of an incredibly complicated and intricate system within the human body. While we can’t all become experts on the topic, we can at least strive to understand the basics of what cholesterol is and why high levels can lead to health issues.
For this article, I’m going to focus on low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, also referred to as LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is a mixture of cholesterol, protein, and various other substances. It gets its negative reputation because it has a bad habit of depositing “excess cholesterol in blood vessel walls and contributes to hardening of the arteries and heart disease.” Generally, a diet that is high in saturated fats and trans unsaturated fats has been shown to lead to increased levels of LDL cholesterol. Since your body doesn’t need all of that cholesterol for essential functions, the excess gets “deposited in plaques on the walls of blood vessels,” which may lead to atherosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke.
Your body, specifically your liver, is designed to supply all the cholesterol that is necessary for essential functions. Therefore, cholesterol consumed via diet is technically “extra.” Foods that contain saturated and trans unsaturated fats (trans fats), have been shown to lead to increased levels of unnecessary LDL cholesterol. A majority of animal-based products (including meat, dairy, and eggs) are all rich in these types of fats, which is also referred to as dietary cholesterol versus the all-natural liver-made cholesterol. Once consumed, saturated and trans fats spur the liver into making more cholesterol that is unnecessary for a basic functioning body.
Let’s put this in perspective with a little comparison.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends ingesting no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. An average eight-ounce cut of steak has around 200 milligrams of cholesterol versus a vegan eggplant steak option, such as this Eggplant Steak with Fajitas, which has no cholesterol at all. A half breast of chicken offers up 73 milligrams of cholesterol versus one ounce of tofu, such as in this Greek Salad with Tofu Feta, which has no cholesterol. Similar to chicken, a three-ounce serving of pork loin offers up about 73 milligrams of cholesterol, while one cup of lentils, such as in these Couscous Lentil Patties, has no cholesterol.
As you see, the trend is added cholesterol via animal meats or no cholesterol via plant-based meatless options.
When it comes to understanding the relationship between plant-based foods and cholesterol, you first need to be introduced to polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. First off, plant-based foods are “low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol.” That’s right, you read that correctly, plant-based foods are cholesterol free! With that said, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts do contain various amounts of different fats, including saturated fat (healthy in small quantities), as well as one or both of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated healthy fats. Of course, as with anything, overconsumption of these plant-based fats have the potential to change the cholesterol levels within your body.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are plant-based healthy fats that are differentiated by their chemical makeup: more than one unsaturated carbon bond (polyunsaturated) versus one unsaturated carbon bond (monounsaturated). They are found in many plant-based foods including walnuts, bananas, cauliflower, soybeans, flaxseed, chia seeds, avocado, and olive oil, to name just a few. Even though these are healthy fats and tend to offer up healthy benefits, such as an improvement in mental disorders, decrease risk for heart disease, and even a decrease in LDL cholesterol. Overconsumption of any type of fat can lead to negative changes in your cholesterol levels such as disproportionate levels or even an increase in LDL cholesterol.
The great thing about a plant-based diet is that, in moderation, you really don’t have to worry about the cholesterol levels in your food. Yet, for those that are actively looking to lower their LDL cholesterol levels, there are a few plant-based foods that are particularly crafty at triggering a change in those numbers.
Here are a few of the most notable LDL lowering cholesterol:
Soluble fiber “attracts water and turns to gel during digestion,” which slows digestion and is a recommended natural remedy for those suffering from bowel distress. Plant-based foods that are high in soluble fiber include beans, oats, lentils, peas, nuts, and seeds. Yet, when it comes to cooking with these LDL cholesterol-fighting foods, make sure balance out the recipe to decrease any saturated fat such as “coconut oil, coconut milk, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, and palm oil.”
Recipes that strike a generous balance are heavy on the veggie side and light on the oil side such as these Teriyaki Patties — which are oil-free, yet packed with oats, seeds, and fresh herbs — this chia seed-based, oil-free Greek Dressing — or this veggie and pea loaded Oil-Free Instant Pot Paella.
This grouping of natural compounds are found in plant cell membranes and are attributed to lower LDL cholesterol levels. Phytosterols mimic the livers naturally produced cholesterol and therefore “when they are consumed they compete with cholesterol for absorption in the digestive system,” resulting in a cholesterol block and reduced LDL levels. A few plant-based foods that include these phytosterols include nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and macadamia; whole grains, such as flaxseed; and a host of fruits and vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, red onion, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, and lettuce.
Follow the same rules as with high soluble fiber foods and aim for a balance between no cholesterol veggies, high phytosterol plants-based products, and low-fat natural products. A great example are these Black Bean Chili Stuffed Sweet Potatoes which use high-phytosterol red onion, healthy-fat filled avocado, and no oils. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, do not fear! Try out these oil-free, flaxseed-rich, low-fat Flourless Soft Batch Double Chocolate Chip Cookies or start your morning with a bit of sweetness with this Blueberry and Millet Porridge which is chock-full of phytosterol blueberries, oat milk, and uses vegan butter instead of oil.
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